25 February, 2021

A Poem on Language, Perfectly Encapsulating What Language Means to Me

There Is No Word
By Tony Hoagland

There isn't a word for walking out of the grocery store
with a gallon jug of milk in a plastic sack
that should have been bagged in double layers

– so that before you are even out the door
you feel the weight of the jug dragging
the bag down, stretching thin

plastic handles longer and longer
and you know it's only a matter of time until
bottom suddenly splits.

There is no single, unimpeachable word
for that vague sensation of something
moving away from you

as it exceeds its elastic capacity
– which is too bad, because that is the word
I would like to use to describe standing on the street

chatting with an old friend
as the awareness grows in me that he is
no longer a friend, but only an acquaintance,

a person with whom I never made the effort –
until this moment, when as we say goodbye
I think we share a feeling of relief,

a recognition that we have reached
the end of a pretense,
though to tell the truth

what I already am thinking about
is my gratitude for language –
how it will stretch just so much and no farther;

how there are some holes it will not cover up;
how it will move, if not inside, then
around the circumference of almost anything –

how, over the years, it has given me
back all the hours and days, all the
plodding love and faith, all the

misunderstandings and secrets
I have willingly poured into it.

* * * * *

The aim of a lot of poems, especially in contemporary poetry, is to point out a universal truth by providing the reader with very specific details. The poet Tony Hoagland puts his love of language on explicit display in the above piece, "There Is No Word," and the poem succeeds, on multiple levels, in bringing his point across.

I posted my own poem about vocabulary options in various languages several years ago, but Hoagland gets at something more. His warts-and-all love of language, what it can and can't do, is evident, brought to the fore by those concluding pairings: "hours and days," "plodding love and faith," "misunderstandings and secrets." How could we not see Hoagland's tenderness and be moved?

"There Is No Word" is one of the poems I keep a copy of, for rereading whenever the mood strikes. This past weekend was just such an occasion. I had my "Favorite Poems" folder out and was reading, on the bed, more or less at random – poems by Timothy Donnelly, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucia Perillo, Vijay Seshadri, Dean Young, and, of course, Tony Hoagland. By the time I looked up at the clock, a whole hour had passed and it was time for work. I could've spent all morning there, doing only that, which is testament enough to the love I'm talking about here.

16 February, 2021

The Eighty-Fourth Problem

A friend I've known for more than ten years remarked on the lightening he recently noticed in my overall perspective. He attributed the shift to Buddhism, which I started practicing a couple of years ago. I didn't argue, even though adopting the label "Buddhist" was only a recent formalization of ideals and precepts that evolved from a decades-long chain of life events. I might not have been reading sutras, sitting zazen, or reciting mantras, but practicing mindfulness, mental discipline, and moderation has carried me through twenty years' imprisonment pretty well.

The question comes often enough: How do I cope? You won't understand unless you live it, and even if you did (which I hope never, ever happens), that understanding will be yours, not mine. Only certain mundane similarities between them will exist. So, what possible answer can I provide, except to say that I just do. The way out is through.

There's an old folk tale about the Buddha traveling with his followers to a farming village. He was sought out by a farmer there, who asked him about some personal problems. The farmer complained that whenever he wanted to plant, the rains fell without end, and when he finally did sow his crops there wasn't enough rain.

"I can't help you with that," the Buddha said.

The farmer realized that the Enlightened One might not control the weather, but other problems should be possible to get help with. So he said to the Buddha, "Other things have been bothering me, too – my wife, for one. She complains all the time. I feel like nothing I do is ever good enough for her. And my kids, they're too lazy to work in the fields. And my son drinks too much. And I have a neighbor who's making threats because my cows get into his fields all the time."

Gently, the Buddha held up a hand to silence him. He said, "I can't help you with any of those things."

"Well, what good are you, then?" the farmer spat.

The Buddha replied, "Everyone has eighty-three problems. When one of them gets better, another gets worse. It goes on and on like this forever. You haven't even mentioned that you're going to die someday and your land will go to your troublesome children. Everything you have ever worked for will be lost. Those are your eighty-three problems."

"Can't you help me with any of them?"

"I might be able to help you with the eighty-fourth problem."

"What's that?" the farmer begged.

The Buddha gazed with perfect equanimity. "The eighty-fourth problem is that you want not to have any problems."

This equivalent to a Buddha mike-drop ends many popular Buddhist stories.

I consider institutionalization a dirty word. For the same reasons as I refuse to call my housing unit "home," or to rely on the prison to provide me everything, I reject any suggestion that I'm less than vigilant against becoming institutionalized. It takes tremendous, continual effort not to let imprisonment define me. Still, by seeming not to let being locked away trouble me, by refusing lease to bitterness, by not letting myself get mired in self-pity, I defy people's expectations of how an innocent person in prison acts. My thinking is simply that, wrongful conviction or not, I'm here. Why make it worse by stewing over the hand I've drawn?

There's another Buddhist tidbit – this a little more official – in a Pali text called the Sallatha Sutta ("The Arrow," or "The Dart," as English translations have it). In it, the Buddha's speaking to his followers about how pleasant, neutral, and painful feelings are all felt by the untaught layperson and the well-taught disciple alike.

"When an untaught worldling is touched by a painful feeling, he worries, he grieves, he laments, he beats his breast, he weeps, distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feelings, a bodily and a mental feeling. It's as if a man was pierced by an arrow and following the first piercing, he is hit by a second arrow."

He goes on to say that the well-taught follower of the Noble Eightfold Path, given the same circumstances, won't fall into throes of woe.

"It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one but not a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by an arrow who was not hit by the second one, following the first."

This sutra is also sometimes called the Sutra of the Second Arrow, and it's a prime example of what Buddhism teaches: shit's bad enough without us making it worse by dwelling on it. It's not about indifference or being callous, just about acceptance – which is not the same thing as surrender. These are fine distinctions to make, but I trust that you have at least an inkling of what I'm trying to get across.

Problems are going to come along, no matter who you are. That's living. There will be arrows shot at us. Some will pierce their targets, while others will miss. When they hit us, it'll hurt. Paying attention to how we respond to that pain, realizing that we have some choice of how we react, can be life-altering, which is precisely what my friend believed he saw at work in me.

05 February, 2021

Writing My Own TV Program

The stakes are low when the program you're writing is deliberately low-budget and features episodes that're only sixty seconds long, but they feel high. The Mountain Man Minute is the show in question, a collaboration between me and a former compatriot from the Speak Easy Gavel Club. It puts a spin on survival-based reality TV by presenting well-researched information with pasted-on backgrounds and a dash of twitchy-eyed insanity.

The idea arose in line for breakfast, as Mountain Man (which is not, in fact, his real name) and I joked about the multitude of possible life forms in his Duck Dynasty-worthy beard. The prison's video production studio (which my job requires me to make videos for) was weeks away from opening. Everything had the potential to be a TV show. Why not something absurd about surviving in the wilderness? Taking a cue from 1980s and '90s public access television shows, Mountain Man and I decided that a straight-faced, didactic approach to survivalism would be funniest. We threw ideas at each other for weeks, passing notes back and forth between our wings.

"Greetings and salutations, citizens," the script for Episode 001 begins. "This is The Mountain Man Minute, your port in the storm of society's collapse." It goes on to discuss what contents make the ideal "bug-out bag" – including Febreze, since it covers up your thoughts from the invading aliens, who are able to smell them.

Tips from subsequent episodes include: telling time with sticks, avoiding snow blindness with cardboard, trapping bait fish in a plastic bottle, filtering water with tampons, and all the ways in which "Moss is your friend!"

Because we only ever see each other for a few minutes a day, at meals, the method by which Mountain Man and I have agreed to cowrite the show is this: we each write half of the episodes on our own, then turn the pages over to the other. Then we critique and rewrite as needed. Scripting my twelve episodes took me a couple of hours, unevenly distributed over a three-day period, and was a lot of fun.

For the green screen work that The Mountain Man Minute requires, we're waiting on a shipment of additional studio lights to come in. I'm somewhat too enthusiastic about whenever we might start shooting. Meanwhile, writing the show is a fun diversion. With any luck it'll even make someone (besides us) laugh.